Recently I completed three stories about my own reactions to Australia’s involvement in the American War against Vietnam.
- A prelude to war
- We don’t want war
- Darkest before the dawn
My interest is in producing an anthology of writings, perspectives on this period of conflict. I’m hoping that my modest efforts might attract other writers with something to say about this period.
Please drop me a note in the comments section for this post, if the proposition interests you
Here is a short segment from the first in the series. I’ve included the YouTub video that inspired the first part of this story.
A prelude to war
Thang sent a link to a YouTube video.
“Somewhere on this Danish refugee boat, which saved us from the damaged Truong Xuan is my family,” he explained. “We entered Hong Kong from Saigon right at the end of the Viet War.”
He had mentioned the escape but never in as much detail as the video revealed, but then he was only around four when they left, on 30 April, 1975. Thang and his family were in the first phase of a mass migration as North Vietnamese tanks entered the Presidential Palace, ending countless years of war..
Some 3,628 other refugees crammed onboard the Truong Xuan sailing from Saigon with a skeleton crew. Somewhere in the South China Sea its engines stopped and its pumps failed Captain Pham Ngoc Luy realised his vessel was in danger of capsizing. He sent out a distress signal. A Danish container ship M.S. Clara Maersk answered.
Captain Anton Olsen explained, “We get an SOS early in the morning, and then we turn around right away to the given position. Of course the given position was not right in the beginning, but after around three hours we found the ship.”
People were draped everywhere. Engine room crew managed to start the engines again the pumps began working but the ship was leaking too fast for the pumps to cope.
“So, finally we got alongside,” Captain Olsen continued. We put everything down, nets, gangway, they came up all over. It took us six hours to get everybody on board.”
Three babies were born on board, and the first, Clara, was named after the ship.
As the YouTube video ended another message from Thang accompanying grainy photo popped up on my iMessenger stream. “My dad made a poster of media coverage. The picture is of my sis and I at the Hong Kong refugee camp early May 1974.”
“Then we flew from Hong Kong to Sydney with Qantas in June, the first few hundred to come after war finished. I was like winning first prize in the Jackpot Lottery,” he added.
Meeting Thang has caused me to reflect on my own earlier understanding of the Vietnam War. Travelling through Vietnam with him in 2014 deepened my sense of the conflict, though my most unexpected perception was the people’s resilience in surviving the massive United States bombing campaign that spilled out into Laos and Cambodia.
Coming from a strong Labor family, my great grandfather a founding member, I was introduced to politics over the dinner table. Countless party functions from annual picnics, and sports days, to fund raising nights when the living room was transformed into a mini casino were common. My political reality was grounded in neighbourhood networks and a strong commitment to democracy. Politics was a natural part of conversation, so it came as a surprise to me when I discovered others who considered my preoccupations either eccentric or incorrect.
“It suits Menzies to portray Labor as a party allied with the Communists,” said Dad, in one discussion. “He sees votes in making things very simple, goodies versus baddies, and he’s trying to associate Labor with the Communists.”
Under Prime Minister R G Menzies, Australia’s immediate post war support for the decolonisation process was steadily eroded. Under his successors, Holt, Gorton and McMahon, independence movements were refracted through a new prism of paranoia, xenophobia and fear of Communism. Clarity and precision in international matters was distorted. Even the non-aligned movement of countries was seen as aligned with the baddies because they weren’t explicitly aligned with the goodies.
Entering high school in 1960 brought contact with diverse yet predominantly European mix of fellow students. Post war Australia drew refugees and migrants from the breadth of the European continent. Amongst them were families with direct experience of Nazism and Soviet oppression. Another refugee influx occurred after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Against this backdrop the Cold War politics of fear, practised by the Menzies, resonated sympathetically.
I was an unselfconscious Labor supporter.
“Russell you must admit that the Labor Party is just that much closer to the Communism than the Liberal Party,” said Edward, a school friend whom I’d known since Primary School.
“Edward, I don’t see it that way. The Australian Labor Party supports democracy and freedom, it doesn’t support banning other parties.”
“Yeah but it’s closer to Communism Russell,” Edward insisted.
“It was formed by people who were just defending their rights as workers and has nothing to do with Communism.”
“It’s closer, that’s all I’m saying.”
I couldn’t blame Edward for having these views. His family was from Czechoslovakia and being Jewish ensured they had suffered under Nazism and Stalinism. I didn’t understand the term Stalinism then it was all just Communism, and whatever it was, it all went on behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.
 Australian Labor Party.